Categotry Archives: alchemy


Literatures of Alchemy in Medieval and Early Modern England – Eoin Bentick

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Categories: alchemy, hermeticism, Tags:

Literatures of Alchemy in Medieval and Early Modern England coverLike Bruce Janacek’s recently reviewed Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England, this book is concerned with how alchemy was perceived in Early Modern England, with the focus here being on literary works. Rather than simply providing a survey of specifically alchemical literature from alchemists and their advocates, Eoin Bentick casts a wider net to provide more fluid understandings of the art in that period, exploring how it was conceptualised by adept and sceptic alike, and how its obfuscated language was interpreted by those who didn’t know their alembic from their athanor. In so doing, Bentick endeavours to answer the question as to why the difficult writing and language of alchemy held appeal for so many.

Literatures of Alchemy in Medieval and Early Modern England has its content divided into two sections, the first considering how alchemical obtuseness was dealt with in medieval poetry and academia, as well as the wider culture. The second turns to the language of alchemy itself and narrows the view in particular to how it was read and understood by those novitiates beginning their alchemical journey. Bentick opens with an introduction, but this is no mere formality and instead gives a thorough history of alchemy, beginning in Egypt with Zosimos of Panopolis, marking its growth in the Arab world, and then its expansion into Europe where it was assimilated into the canon of Latin scientific literature and even incorporated into Christian cosmology. Concise yet detailed, this makes for a valuable primer, even for those who might be familiar with alchemical history, allowing the background of alchemy and its procedures to be covered off before getting to the grist of this book: writings about the thing, not the thing itself..

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The first chapter bears the intriguing title Ignotum Per Ignocius: Literatures of Alchemical Impotence, the choice of which becomes clear when the topic is depictions of alchemists as fools or dupes. Satirisation was the name of the game in the medieval and early modern periods, with alchemists represented in literature as either tricksters or the tricked. Bentick gives a variety of examples from Ben Johnson, Dante and Petrarch, but the largest analysis is of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the yeoman tells two stories, each about a different canon, both of whom are deceitful alchemists. The canon whom the yeoman is indentured to appears to be inept, despite his claims of great skill, while the second canon is a charlatan who tricks a priest into buying a recipe with the claim that it can turn things into silver. As S. Foster Damon argued 100 years ago in his article Chaucer and Alchemy, Chaucer may have attacked charlatan alchemists because they were becoming a public menace, but he appears to have also surreptitiously included information so that genuine alchemists would recognise him as one of their own; which they did. Indeed, Chaucer provides something of a through line within this book, being a friend of John Gower who is discussed in the second chapter, while a century later, the poet and alchemist Thomas Norton satirised the alchemical bona fides that Chaucer had been given.

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Questions of morality and character arise again in the second chapter, Alchemical Theories of Social Reform, in which Bentick surveys the use of alchemy as a metaphor or analogy of the reinvigoration of a fallen present. The obvious exemplar of this is what Bentick refers to as the Holistic Alchemy of Roger Bacon, with the Doctor Mirabilis seeing alchemy as a force for social evolution, though perhaps not in the most altruistic of manners. Based on a unique misreading of the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum (a work that presents itself as messages given by Aristotle to Alexander during the conquest of Achaemenid Persia), Bacon believed that it was through the alchemical principles taught by Aristotle that Alexander was able to conquer the known world. For Bacon, people could be changed by the manipulation of the elements, making it possible for a skilled alchemist to transmute an entire population on the macrocosmic level just as they would the microcosmic elements in a laboratory. As unethical as this sounds, Bentick notes that this core idea would influence others who saw alchemy as capable of social improvement, such as the 14th century poet John Gower and the 15th century poet and alchemist, Thomas Norton. While Gower followed Bacon’s model of a moral universal improvement, Norton focussed on the idea of a redemptive Alchemical King whose changes would be more overtly political, one who would Antiquos mores mutabit in meliores (‘change old ways into better.’).

For his third chapter, British Library, MS Harley 2407, Bentick turns to the manuscript of the title and considers its compilation of alchemy-related poems. The MS consists of six booklets, mostly written by two fifteenth-century scribes, with over twenty people contributing to an accretion of notes in the margins and spaces from the fifteenth to eighteenth century; including the recognisable hands of John Dee and Elias Ashmole. There are nine Middle English poems in the manuscript, making it indicative of the veritable boom in English alchemical verse in the fifteenth century and onwards; contrasting with previous centuries in which Latin prose had dominated as the lingua alchemica, and with only a fraction of that being presented in verse. The clutch from this manuscript are categorised by Bentick as recipe poems, gnomic poems, theoretical poems, and conceit poems, and he provides an analysis of each one under those groupings.

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Bentick’s fourth and final chapter, Alchemical Hermeneutics, opens with a discussion on how alchemists, with their reverence for the inerrancy of the past, reacted when coming across alchemical information that was contrary to either their training or experience. The assimilation of such potentially false knowledge required interpretation, rather than dismissal, using an Augustinian system of hermeneutics, in which everything, be it text or the physical universe, was to be interpreted in order to discovered the divine truth buried within it. This speaks to Bentick’s core theme here, that the literature of alchemy, be it by novices, sceptics or adepts, helped to perpetuate the allure of alchemy. Even when someone like Chaucer uses the Canon’s Yeoman Canon as a vehicle to depict alchemists as fools or mountebanks, such presentations encouraged readers to seek out the truths that must surely lie behind the façade. Furthermore, the rich symbolism of alchemy ensured its own perpetuity, with its lexicon gifting writers such as Shakespeare and Sidney with ready images of amelioration and mystery. These writers, then, maintained the allure of the arte, adding to its inherent sense of wonder with their alchemical use of language to create even more wonder.

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Despite its four chapter length, Literatures of Alchemy in Medieval and Early Modern England feels like it crams a lot into its sub-200 pages. Bentick writes with an assured style, the general thesis being threaded throughout with no sense of wandering off into tangents or becoming mired in irrelevancies. The book is presented by D.S. Brewer as a hardback with a cover design by Hannah Gaskamp that incorporates an alchemical petegrue from MS Harley 2407. In at least this review copy, the pages are printed on an unpleasant acid-free paper by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, leaving a distracting film on one’s fingers with every page turn. In addition, the cover image is sloppily misaligned, drifting off centre so that the petegrue image touches the right edge of the book resulting in a vast empty space being left on the cover’s opposite edge; with the title and printer’s mark on the spine being similarly misaligned. It is not clear whether this slipshod production is true for all copies, or if we just got unlucky.

Published by D.S. Brewer


The Light of Hermes Trismegistus – Charles Stein

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Categories: alchemy, classical, hellenic, hermeticism, Tags:

The Light of Hermes Trismegistus coverCharles Stein’s The Light of Hermes Trismegistus is one of those releases from Inner Traditions that feels a little different from their usual fare, appearing as something for shelving in the reference section, rather than the personal growth or practical magic ones. Stein has a Ph.D. in literature and a bachelor’s degree in ancient Greek, and in the past he has principally published works of poetry, as well as a Persephone-focussed study of the Eleusian Mysteries. With this new book he provides translations of what are categorised here as seven essential Hermetic texts, each drawn from the earliest written source, and with context and further insights provided by Stein’s preamble and voluminous commentaries.

Despite a subtitle promising “seven Hermetic texts,” the works included here come from a period that spans several centuries, beginning in the seventh century BCE and ending in the fourth century CE, with only one of them, Poimandres, having provenance within that great canon of Hermetic thought, the Corpus Hermeticum. Thus, instead of being texts that could be specifically defined, in a purely technical sense, as Hermetica, these are works that pull on threads various, drawing from Greek myth, the Homeric Hymns, Neoplatonism, archaic alchemy, and (in the case of Apuleius’ The Metamorphoses) picaresque novels from ancient Rome. The one occasional through-line amongst these temporally and culturally diverse texts is Hermes, whether he appears as the divine messenger of Greek myth, as seen in Hesiod’s Theogony, or as the later Hellenistic syncretic form of the fabled Hermes Trismegistus; with Stein regarding the mythic and the legendary incarnations as largely one and the same.

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Stein opens with a substantial introduction, outlining his focus on Hermes in a rather personal and devotional manner, describing him as the very principle of the mind in all its possibilities. Here, Stein makes clear his intent, defining this work as an exercise in what he calls configurative theology, with an attendant configurative theophany, emphasising the concept of hermeneutics, in which the translation and interpretations of a text perpetuate it in new, ever evolving ways.

Hesiod’s Theogony is the first work featured here, with Stein translating from the original Greek as recorded in Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s 1977 collection of the Homeric Hymns and works by Hesiod. As a poem dated to the eighth or seventh century BCE, this is the piece furthest from the traditional corpus of Hermetica, retelling the creation of the world. In his commentary, Stein ties this act of cosmic creation to Hesiod’s text itself, saying that Theogony does not simply describe the act but rather, through the reading thereof, initiates it. This is emblematic of Stein’s hermeneutic approach to this material, using etymology, historical precedent and philosophy to present it as not only profound, but inherently magical.

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Rather than providing a line-by-line analysis of each text, Stein’s commentary is often focussed little on the specific textual content itself, and instead uses the works as starting off points for broader discussions of each core theme. Sometimes this extends far beyond the source texts, such as in the translation of a text by Zosimos of Panopolis, which is followed by an extensive overview of alchemy that stretches centuries, even millennia beyond the fourth century origins of the source; embracing everything from the Greek Magical Papyri to seventeen and eighteenth century alchemists, but without too much reference to the text itself.

This book’s Hermes-focussed brief finds a good fit in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, for which Stein provides a nimble translation followed by commentary focussed on the themes of magical voice and conscious listening. This is the abruptly book ended by an assemblage of somewhat contextless and usually brief additional comments on various matters from within the hymn, some as little as a sentence long, each divided by a short row of bullet points as if they were research notes that have been formatted into the chapter by mistake (not that they were).

In the next section, The Poem of Parmenides, Stein translates the fragments of Parmenides’ sole surviving work, usually retroactively referred to, though not here, as On Nature. Here the following commentary is less an exegesis on matters metaphysical and is, for the most part, purely textual in its focus, with a selection of notes about the translation.

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Stein’s translations are often functional with a literal approach that predicates economy over poeticism. His translation of The Poimandres, for example is almost staccato in its brevity, with none of the free verse flourish and beauty of G.R.S. Mead’s version. The same is true of the Chaldean Oracles, though this is largely due to the fragmentary nature of the very source material. For the version here, Stein has used only 87 of the 260 extant fragments, and, diverging from the ordering template established in 1894 by Wilhelm Kroll, has rearranged them as if they make up a single poem.

After a free verse reinterpretation of the vision of Isis sequence from Apuleius’ prose The Metamorphoses, Stein concludes with a translation of a foundational but innominate alchemical text by Zosimos of Panopolis, in which the 4th century Greco-Egyptian alchemist related a series of visionary dream journeys. This translation dates from 1964, using a text found in the Columbia University Library (though Stein notes that the exact source document is unknown as he no longer has the reference), and it was first published the same in his own single issue journal of the occult and the phenomenology, Aion: A Journal of Traditionary Science. For his translation, Stein uses the title On Divine Virtue and follows it with a commentary that is significantly longer than the mere five pages of entries from Zosimos’ dream journal.

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Priscilla Harris Baker provides the text design and layout for The Light of Hermes Trismegistus, using Garamond for body copy and Trajan, Optima and Gill Sans as display faces. The translations themselves are formatted in Friz Quadrata, a pleasant enough modern serif, but one that feels a little incongruous for content from the Hellenistic and Roman eras. With its heavier than usual typographic weight, it is a face that seems more suited for display purposes, and at this point size, the tiny serifs almost disappear, giving the impression of a bulky san serif whose readability is not ideal for often poetically-formatted text. Like another Hermetic-themed work recently published by Inner Traditions, Marlene Seven Bremner’s Hermetic Philosophy and Creative Alchemy, this book has been granted a little more finesse than their usual trade paperbacks. It is presented as a sturdy hardback wrapped in a fetching blue-hued dustjacket, with foiled gold text on both jacket and spine; though it must be said that the gold of the title makes it hard to read against the blue background of the dustjacket.

Published by Inner Traditions


Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England – Bruce Janacek

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Categories: alchemy, Tags:

Alchemical Belief coverIn this unique title, Bruce Janacek explores alchemy in early modern England, but not from a scientific or even necessarily occult perspective. Instead, this is a consideration of how the art was contextualised within the lives, beliefs and philosophies of otherwise religious men for whom an interest in esoteric matters might seem incongruous. In so doing, Janacek shows how the aspirational and hopeful principles that underlie alchemy provided a language and methodology for restoring order, in either a political or religious context, to what was perceived as a disordered world. Janacek divides his books into five chapters, each focusing on one of the major examples of this intersection betwixt religion and alchemy: Thomas Tymme, Robert Fludd, Francis Bacon, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Elias Ashmole.

The first of these men, Thomas Tymme, was a sixteenth-century minister, making him perhaps the most unlikely of advocates for an occult science such as alchemy. Janacek shows how Tymme’s primary concerns was the schisms within Christendom, specifically in post-Reformation England which had seen the emergence of Protestant dissenter groups who separated themselves from the Church of England, including Brownists, Puritans, Familists and Presbyterians and others. For Tymme, such factions were leading England to ruin, and constituted an enemy within that was far more dangerous than any foreign power. Such ecumenical concerns dominated Tymme’s initial run of publications, which Janacek documents fully, but following a largely silent decade between 1592 and 1602, Tymme turned somewhat unexpectedly to alchemy, publishing three treatises over the course of the following decade. He began with A Light in Darkness, a commentary on John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica, in which he traced the origin of esoteric tradition to the Postlapsarian world and gave Tubalcain a prominent role as an antediluvian alchemical figure, referring to him as “that Vulcanical Abram Tubalcain the astrologian and great arithmetitian.” As with this retelling of biblical history, the two periods of Tymme’s writing have a through line in the theme of spiritual harmony, with Tymme seeing the unity that he sought within Christendom as an emulation of divine oneness, a state that was, for him, illustrated by alchemical processes. Essentially, the universe was a divinely-ordered place and alchemy revealed its order.

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Robert Fludd seems a more obvious alchemical fit given his proximity to similar subjects as a Paracelsian physician and defender of Rosicrucianism. Like Tymme, Fludd’s promotion of alchemy was tied to a natural theology that saw nature in all its forms, including alchemy, music and mathematics, as a revelation of God’s presence: nature was essentially a testament to God’s hand that could be read as easily as inerrant scripture. Fludd also shared Tymme’s concerns with unity, though rather than the ecclesiastical irenicism that would have brought Christendom together, he sought one that removed the boundaries between philosophical systems, integrating religious, philosophical and occult traditions. It is Frudd’s natural theology and its relationship to alchemy that Janacek focuses on here, particularly in contrast to the tutor and author, Patrick Scot, who, though accepting of alchemy as allegory, found it anathema to see it and any efficacy as a sign of God’s hand. Janacek illustrates this divide by analysing Scot’s refutation of alchemy, The Tillage of Light, and Fludd’s unpublished response to it, Truth’s Golden Harrow, showing how the difference of opinion between the two men reflected wider philosophical divides, in particular the orthodox distrust of the emerging spirit of Pyrrhonic scepticism. This highlights one of the joys of Janacek’s writing here, how he effortlessly contextualises everything within the mores and shifting beliefs of the time, whether it is alchemy’s relationship to scepticism, or in another instance, how Fludd’s coadunative motivations embraced and aligned with Cabalism’s search for divine union.

Interestingly, of the five figures discussed in this work it is Francis Bacon who emerges as the most unlikely of alchemists, more so than even the Reverend Tymme, with Janacek focussing for most of his chapter on the father of empiricism’s published distain for the art. Bacon was withering in his treatment of alchemists, diagnosing them as being infected by their imagination, and calling Paracelsus, in the sickest of burns, the ‘adopted son of the family of asses’ and someone whose writings were the mere braying of a person possessed of a conspicuously braggart air. But Janacek attributes much of this invective to Bacon’s practiced dissimulation, an essential skill as a courtier for both Elizabeth I and James I, where one’s longevity could be assured through the judicious allegiances and the circumspect giving and withholding of advice or opinions. Drawing on Paolo Rossi’s ground-breaking 1957 rehabilitation of Bacon’s association with magic, Janacek shows how Bacon’s core ideas, as expressed in his Novum Organum, such as the spiritual quality of matter and its potential for mutability, were shared with alchemists.

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Amongst the esteemed Protestants considered by Janacek is a lone Catholic, the courtier, diplomat and natural philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby. Like his contemporaries, Digby shared a concern with religious harmony, although for him, this was to be found in Catholicism, which, as embodied in the miracle of transubstantiation, stood for unity, inclusiveness and perfection; unlike the division and discord of Protestantism. For Digby, the miraculous process of transubstantiation was mirrored in alchemy and Janacek shows how this facilitated a vision of alchemy that tacked closely to Catholicism, with, in one instance, a particular emphasis on the theme of resurrection as an analogue of alchemical process. Digby’s last alchemical text, the posthumously-published Chymical Secrets, stands as a testament to this amalgam of religion and occult science, with a preface that acts as an apologetic for both alchemy and Catholicism, arguing that the Catholic doctrine of free will was a crucial element in the alchemical process. In this process Digby found a manifestation of the Trinity, with the stages and materials in the act of transmutation marking out the Creator (“Soul”), the Incarnation (“Body”) and the Holy Spirit (“Spirit”).

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Janacek’s concluding chapter concerns the antiquary and politician Elias Ashmole who is justifiably immortalised in the University of Oxford museum that bears his name, a site that is the fullest realisation of his life-long collecting of naturalia, artificialia, as well as heraldic, astrological and alchemical manuscripts. Janacek shows how Ashmole’s dedicated pursuit and publication of alchemical manuscripts aligned with the hopes for unity that underscored the philosophies and goals of his predecessors Tymme, Fludd, Bacon, and Digby. Ashmole identified himself as a priestly figure and envisioned his collecting and publishing of knowledge as sacred work, something which Janacek shows was not an uncommon practice at the time, with similar acts of agglomeration being visualised as vehicles for Edenic renewal. Ashmole’s publication of Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is exemplary of this motivation and his belief that alchemy was key to acquiring prelapsarian wisdom and freeing humanity from the corruption wrought by the Fall of man. By compiling, as it did, alchemical texts by Thomas Norton, George Ripley, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Lydgate, John Dastin, Abraham Andrews, William Backhouse and various anonymous authors, this British chemical theatre could essentially be seen as a devotional work, a testament to alchemy’s transformative potential.

Alchemical Belief runs to a mere 164 pages, followed by a significant wad of endnotes and references, but it by no means feels short, with the small point size cramming a significant word count into each page, and illustrations being kept to a minimum. In addition, Janacek has a writing style that if not dense could be considered comprehensive, often straying from the respective main subject into broader but relevant areas. This never feels egregious, and indeed it is always in the service of providing valuable context. For example, a discussion of Ashmole’s interest in botany and gardening (simultaneous with his exploration of alchemy) evolves into a larger discussion of how the use of collecting as an aide to Edenic renewal extended to formal gardens. A garden that incorporated numerology, cabalism or biblical symbolism into its design extended such a locus from its purely botanical function to one that created a new vision of the relationship between humanity and nature. As a result, the reader expecting a book simply about alchemy may find themselves knowing significantly more about the broader concerns of early modern England, both mundane and esoteric. Janacek ultimately succeeds in his brief, showing how alchemy was not, as one could superficially view it, a mere occult science (or pseudoscience), but was instead something that intelligent men could integrate into their religious world view, often with little effort or regret.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press


Entering the Desert – Craig Williams

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Categories: alchemy, hermeticism, magick, Tags:

Entering the Desert cover, standard hardback editionAnathema Publishing has released several works by Craig Williams, but this was the first, a relatively slight text based on the idea of the working with the theme of the desert and the solitude of monasticism. As with some other reviews of Anathema titles, this one requires a slight caveat as your humble reviewer has an editing credit here, though in my defence, time marches so inexorably forward that I often don’t immediately recall the text ‘pon reading it.

What becomes immediately apparent in reading Entering the Desert is a decisive placement of its contents in opposition, setting it, as the saying goes, against the modern world. Williams lets little time pass between moments of decrying something wrong with modernity, be it the world in general or occultism in particular. This degree of vituperative invective gets a little tiresome rather quickly, and its earnestness grates in its self-congratulatory repetition, getting in the way of good narrative as there’s almost an unspoken expectation that the reader will be hooting and hollering at each sick burn. It’s like when someone first discovers that Christianity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that popular culture isn’t as cool as Hot Topic culture, or when Krusty the Clown became a tell-it-like-it-is stand-up comedian, except here the shibboleth is that nasty nasty modernity, boo, hiss.

Spread with a painting by David S. Herrerias

It is, though, this opposition to the modern that acts as the primary motivation for what is presented here, with the entering of the desert being a chance to literally get away from it all. The desert is idealised as a place of isolation from the modern world, the journey to which is, as the book’s subtitle renders it, a pilgrimage into the hinterlands of the soul. Conversely, though, this is but one of what Williams identifies as two deserts, with the individual’s internal Desert of the Soul contrasting with an outer desert of the collective environment and dreaded modernity. Williams is at pains to point out that using this iconography is not an escapist fantasy or just a simple visualisation (which would, no doubt, be oh so modern), but rather a less tangible mode of being, more of a telling-it-like-it-is in which “one ruthlessly examines and accepts all the ‘aspects of life.’”

Spread with graphics by David S. Herrerias

There is a practical side to all this detached examination, and in chapter two, The Cell, Williams expounds on the use of another location within this eremophilous topography. This cell is treated less as a theoretical locus than the wilderness itself, and Williams provides a broad guide to what you’re going to get up to on your lonesome.

Inevitably, what emerges here is clearly indebted to the desert fathers and mothers of the early church, at least in an aesthetic and general approach, even if the overlay is an antinomian, anti-modern, hyper-individualist one. Like those hermetic forebears, the practitioner seeks isolation from the greater world, but Williams hastens to add that there is none of the asceticism of the latter, in which the body and flesh is abhorred and mortified. Despite the preponderance of the world ‘gnostic’ there’s also none of classic Gnosticism’s distain for matter, incarnation and existence. Instead, the cell acts as a space within which to alchemically sacralise the flesh, awakening daemonic voices from within both the mind and the body. To do this, the gnostic hermit enters a unique time stream within the cell, and performs simple exercises of breathing, mediation, reading and dreamless sleep. This awakened Sacramental Vision then allows the devotee to view the desert of the world as a source of nourishment and empowerment, a reflection of the inner landscape of the Soul, and not as an existential threat.

Image that appears blind debossed on the cover of the standard hardback edition

The broad outline of the preceding chapters gets more specific in a section called The Desert Grimoire, which provides exactly that, a grimoire of rituals and verse that is described as a transmission from the deeper regions of the wilderness of the soul. The first item of note is an introduction to a heretofore unmentioned aspect of Williams’ system, a group of primordial and supra-spacetime intelligences called the Priests of Night, whose egress within the cell can be initiated through the cultivation of its atmosphere. Other rituals follow, including a multi-day vigil, an invocation, and a lovely desert liturgy. The Desert Grimoire concludes with a section of verses, two to a page, each accompanied by a sigil and all wrapped within an ornate border. These provide a reification of what has been presented elsewhere in the book, but simplified into, or veiled by, poetic language.

Sigils and texts from the Desert Grimoire

The typography in Entering the Desert is expertly executed in typical Anathema style by Gabriel McCaughry: the body set in a relatively large, fully justified serif face, with headings and quotes in a copper tint for an understated touch of visual interest. David S. Herrerias provides extensive illustrations throughout, with both paintings and pen and ink illustrations, including one painted image of the desert that acts as both the front and rear endpapers, spreading across verso and recto. The internal paintings largely follow the style of this endpapers landscape, with a sedate tableaux of muted yellow and brown tones, including a Sparesian portrait of Williams himself. The pen and ink images follow the style seen previously from Herrerias, including his previously-reviewed Book of Q’Ab-Itz, with amalgams of Andrew Chumbley-like facetted plains and jagged geometry, and spindly things breaking into space. His desolate aesthetic makes for a fitting companion to Williams’ theme, conveying the sense of an eremitic and uncanny touching of the beyond.

In all, Entering the Desert is a pleasing little tome that brings its theme together rather well in terms of written and graphic elements. At its core, it contains some rather simple or fundamental concepts, as one would expect when the matter is one of sitting alone in the desert with nothing but wraiths and strays for company, But Williams presents these in a considered, perhaps too considered, manner that patiently reiterates each theme or technique in what becomes almost its own devotional or meditative act.

Spread with a painting by David S. Herrerias

Entering the Desert was released in four editions: a paperback, along with hardback editions of standard, collector and artisanal; all three of which are now sold out. The paperback runs to 176 pages of Rolland Opaque Natural 140M quality paper, bound in a scuff-free velvet matte with a selective spot varnish on the cover. The standard hardback edition of 400 copies featured 160 pages on Royal Sundance paper, hardbound in Sierra Tan bookcloth, with the title foiled in metallic black foil stamp on the spine and slightly hard to parse phantasmagorical figures blind-debossed to both the front and rear covers.

The collector’s edition of 150 copies binds the pages in a Fiscagomma Agenda dark brown faux leather, with a different symbol to the standard edition stamped in bronze foil on the cover, and metallic bronze foiling to the spine, It comes with a hand-numbered book plate signed by the author. Finally, the artisanal Midnight Sun edition of twelve copies was hand bound in genuine buffalo leather, dyed midnight blue, with a symbol blind debossed and gold foil stamped on the front cover. With custom-made artisanal endpapers and raised nerves and gold foiling on the spine, the Midnight Sun edition was presented in a slipcase bearing handmade custom-dyed marbled paper so that each box looked slightly different to the other.

Each hardcover edition of Entering the Desert also came with a download code for a copy of a musico-mystical contribution from ritual/dark ambient projects Shibalba, Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Khar. These five tracks (or vibrational rituals, as they’re called here), three from Shibalba and two from the collaboration of Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Khar, were channelled specifically as a meditative sound support for Entering the Desert and do have a certain eremophilous quality, casting detailed percussive sounds, throat singing and the occasionally languid Orientalist figure against linear landscapes.

Published by Anathema Publishing

The soundtrack for this release is naturally the pieces created by Shibalba, Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Kar for Entering the Desert. The tracks by  Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Kar can be heard on the Alone in the Garden Bandcamp page.


The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death – Edited by James R. Lewis

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Categories: alchemy, esotericism, hermeticism

The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death coverPart of Routledge’s New Religions series, this James R. Lewis-edited anthology brings together a variety of academic writers in discussion of the Switzerland and Quebec-based Order of the Solar Temple; along with a selection of Solar Temple documents, and some previously published articles edited anew here. As with the similarly named Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, there’s always something intriguing about the idea of magickal orders gone wrong, and things certainly went wrong for members of the Order of the Solar Temple. Formed in 1984, the Order of the Solar Temple came to the attention of the world ten years later when many of its members in both Europe and North America committed suicide or were murdered, while various order properties were set on fire.

Following an introduction by Lewis, things open with an archival piece by Jean-François Mayer from 1993, detailing the history of the various organisational guises, such as the exoteric Lausanne Club, that were associated with the more esoteric order, thereby placing it within a conventional new age milieu of healthy eating, homeopathy and Age of Aquarius earth changes; rather than the more hermetic and Templar-inspired incarnation the inner temple would later become. Naturally, there’s not much in what Mayer presents that foreshadows what would later occur with the Order of the Solar Temple (save for an unwittingly prescient note that the order, then so unknown, might prove of interest to later researchers), though when he describes members of the Lausanne Club innocently lighting a bonfire and dancing around it for St. John’s Day, one can’t help but think of the deadly role that fire would later play.

Considering its varied cast of contributors, The Order of the Solar Temple reads rather coherently, with each piece flowing into the next, building upon its predecessors by adding further details, but with very little in the way of redundancy; at least at the start. Mayer’s pre-1994 consideration of the order and its satellite clubs and groups is followed by Massimo Introvigne’s Ordeal by Fire: The Tragedy of the Solar Temple, which brings the narrative up to the events of 1994 with the first full recapping of what occurred. But Introvigne also prefaces this with a thorough history of the various Templar-inspired groups that preceded the Order of the Solar Temple, placing this side of the organisation within a stream of neo-Templarism and Freemasonry. With that said, though, the Order of the Solar Temple’s beliefs that do emerge throughout the book feel less like those of Templar-obsessed groups, with the usual combination of hermeticism, alchemy and Rosicrucianism, and rather a much more modern beast. Ascended masters, reincarnation and most dramatically of all, the transit to Sirius with members leaving behind their human bodies to assume new astral ‘solar bodies,’ speaks more to the post-Theosophy milieu of late-twentieth century New Age; just dressed up in white capes with red crosses, aided and abetted by a lot of sword waving.

Susan J. Palmer provides another fleshing out of the order’s inner intrigues by way of her Purity and Danger in the Solar Temple, which offers insights into some of the motivations and internal psychology of group members, all viewed through a sociological lens provided by the theories of the British anthropologist Mary Douglas. Douglas, whose work is alluded to in Palmer’s title, argued that the human body mirrors the collective body of a society and that in small and persecuted groups, any actual or perceived threat tends to be dealt with in purity rituals that govern the exits and entrances of the human body, enhancing the collective’s social control over the individual. This is a model that works rather well when applied to the insular and increasingly paranoid order, where control over bodies can be seen in the process of ‘defamilialisation,’ in which members were periodically endowed with new spiritual identities, previous incarnations whose past relationships or antipathies could have an effect on existing partnerships. The order’s affinity for a Gnostic-like asceticism and detachment from the body found its ultimate expression in the events of 1994, when the bodies of members were sloughed off in the final response to perceived external threats, and this attempt at purifying the body of the organisation was then compounded by the repeated use of fire to burn, to varying degrees of success, the corpses and order’s buildings.

John R. Hall and Philip Schuyler add to the discussion of the machinations within the order in The Mystical Apocalypse of the Solar Temple, a reprint of the fifth chapter of Hall’s Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe and Japan from 2000. As in that book, Hall and Schuyler show how the destructive end of a group like the Order of the Solar Temple cannot be simply attributed to the cliché of cult leaders with ulterior motives brainwashing the vulnerable; nor entirely to something inherently violent or destructive in a group’s beliefs. Rather, how society at large responds to this smaller microcosmic society plays a significant role, with the anti-cult hysteria generated by both the media and government departments exacerbating or even initiating conflict. Besides this premise, Hall and Schuyler’s contribution provides perhaps the most thorough recounting yet of the events leading up to 1994, whilst still managing to feel that it doesn’t excessively regurgitate or labour over details covered in previous chapters.

Jean-François Mayer provides another piece, The Dangers of Enlightenment: Apocalyptic Hopes and Anxieties in the Order of the Solar Temple, picking up from where his earlier pre-1994 essay left off, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, offers just that, hindsight, looking at some of the apocalyptic beliefs of the group and asking what signs there were of what later occurred. There’s a certain inevitable overlap of themes in the following Crises of Charismatic Authority and Millenarian Violence: The Case of the Order of the Solar Temple by John Walliss, where unlike Hall and Schuyler, he downplays the validity of any sense of persecution the order may have felt (relatively slight as it was), suggesting instead that the decision to perform the lethal transits was the result of crises of charismatic authority which, after defections and other waverings of order confidence, leaders Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro sought to restore with an act of performative violence. As such, the transits can be seen as a final spectacular ritualistic gesture to the world, through which the order’s leaders tried to “reassert their authority over their followers and create some kind of legend for the order.”

Order of the Solar Temple ritual chamber

Henrik Bogdan, perhaps the only familiar name here from esoteric academia, explores a suitably occult theme in Death as Initiation: The Order of the Solar Temple and Rituals of Initiation, where he turns specifically to the initiatory rituals of Freemasonry. Bogdan gives a relatively thorough account of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, including basic rituals of the former, before ultimately bringing the discussion back to what he’s here for: how death is perceived in an initiatory manner within these types of groups, with specific reference to the Masonic legend of the murder of the master mason Hiram. This, in turn, leads to a consideration of some of the masonic-style rituals of the Order of the Solar Temple, each documented meticulously, with particular note being made of one in which the initiate is ominously taught that death is an illusion, a part of life, and one must be able to die in the profane world to be born into the cosmic world. While such language is by no means uncommon amongst metaphysical groups, Bogdan notes that the Order of the Solar Temple took it beyond the metaphorical with the transit becoming the ultimate ritual of initiation as members transformed into disincarnated Masters, creating a link between the worlds of men and the divine.

There’s the same sense of delving into occult roots in Sources of Doctrine in the Solar Temple by George D. Chryssides, though for someone with his credentials there’s a lot of minor and sloppy errors. There’s a belittling reference to Hatshepsut as an ‘Egyptian princess’ rather than as one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs. Similarly, there’s a misrepresentation of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled as a book that combines ancient Egyptian ideas with eastern spirituality, when the Egyptian section is but one small part of a wider consideration of various strands of Western occult traditions, alongside a history and critique of Christianity; a rookie mistake, perhaps, given the title, but really? Then there’s a strange reference to the Templar’s suppressing Catharism as their last crusade, which seems unlikely, given that it runs counter to their whole raison d’être as bankers and protectors of pilgrims to the Holy Land; and considering that what one could consider as one of their final campaigns was an unsuccessful one fighting off a Mamluk invasion on the other side of the continent in Armenia; followed by further losses of bases in the eastern Mediterranean. The most head scratching statement of all comes when Chryssides, or his editor, so poorly summarises one conspiracy theory about the Order of the Solar Temple that it inelegantly depicts extra-terrestrials building unexplained subterranean chambers (giving the reader the impression that he’s talking about ritual chambers used by the order in Switzerland, not in Nevada as the original theory has it; sigh, it’s a long story better summarised elsewhere in the book), with Jimmy Carter seemingly described at the time of the transits as the “then president”, who, with the CIA at his command, was responsible for the deaths as part of a cover-up.

At this point, things feel like they’ve reached Maximum Templar Saturation (a killer band name if ever there was one) and there can’t be much more to say. This certainly turns out to be the case with the final two essays not contributing much that hasn’t already been said. Marc Labelle’s The Ordre du Temple Solaire and the Quest for the Absolute is a muddled read with tense shifting relentlessly in a space riddled with non sequiturs and anacoluthon, reading as if it was translated from another language and not thoroughly proofed. Meanwhile, Sects, Media and the End of the World by Roland J. Campiche has little to say other than ‘media bad,’ an original sentiment to be sure.

The Order of the Solar Temple concludes with its appendix of order documents, beginning with a letter sent to 60 journalists, scholars, and government officials the morning after the fires in 1994. One part esoteric exegesis, one part paranoid invective against the order’s enemies, there’s a certainty in the words, but also a baffled desperation at the tribulations inflicted upon them by various external ne’er-do-wells. The second document here is for the Ritual for the Donning of the Talar and the Cross, referenced extensively in Bogdan’s essay, which provides an interesting insight into the order’s approach to ritual, part masonic fancy dress, part Catholic pomp and liturgy.

Published by Routledge.


Minerva Britanna – Henry Peacham

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Categories: alchemy, art, esotericism

Minerva Britanna coverIf you’re wondering what Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna is all about, a clue may, or may not, be found in the subtitle which describes it as “A Garden of Heroical Devices, Furnished and Adorned with Emblems and Impressas of Sundry Natures.” Minerva Britanna belongs to a category known as the emblem book in which allegorical illustrations (pictura) sit alongside a motto, usually in Latin (superscriptio), and an explanatory text ranging from a few lines of verse to pages of prose (subscriptio), creating complex patterns of often didactic signi?cation. The first emblem book, the sixteenth century Emblemata, first of its name, by Andrea Alciato, created a popular template and was followed by a raft of similar works over the following century, with Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens being perhaps the most well-known of them. Peacham’s emblem book, published in 1612, 81 years after Alciato’s Emblemata, is reproduced in its entirety here, with little comment other than a several page introduction by Josephine McCarthy.

Peacham, in addition to being a draughtsman, player of tennis and falconer, could be described using the Artistotelian term graphice. Defined by Peacham himself in his Gentleman’s Exercise as someone who specialised in the “use of the pen in writing faire, drawing, painting, and the like,” it marked him as someone admirably able to execute both the written and illustrated aspects of Minerva Britanna. Consisting of 204 emblems, Minerva Britanna was an expansion on two earlier attempts at creating emblem books, one for King James and one for his son, both based on the king’s 1603 treatise on government Basilicon Doron. Though neither book was finished, 68 of the Basilicon Doron emblems found new life in the pages of Minerva Britanna.

Minerva Britanna emblems

McCarthy argues that whilst Minerva Britanna contains some elements of a Neoplatonist-type ascent, in which the soul aspires towards union with the ineffable, it is principally a text of faery magic, mixed with Elizabethan codes, Hermetic wisdom and kingly advice. For McCarthy, it is a book concerned with sacred kingship and its responsibilities, of the land and the sacred female power within it, something made clear with the title’s invocation of the goddesses Minerva and Britannia, matrons of wisdom and the land respectively. It is McCarthy’s contention that nineteenth century occultists, who have had an enduring influence on contemporary occultism, removed magic from the land, enclosing it in vaults and temples, and that the material in Minerva Britanna reflects a vision of magic truer to what was once common practice, one considerably more connected to the worlds of faery and the underworld. By using Minerva Britanna, practitioners are able to connect with this archaic strain of magic again, becoming reacquainted with the wildness, playfulness, puzzles and the shadow of the Faery Queene. Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t give any specific examples of emblems that may reflect this stream of faery magic or support her contention that Peacham was an initiate or at least a follower of its mysteries.

While this edition of Minerva Britanna is not presented as practical and complete workbook, McCarthy briefly offers several ways in which people can utilise Peacham’s emblems in magic. She suggests that the images can be used as a divination deck, divided into three main magical themes that facilitate connections with the sacred land, the faery realm and underworld prophecy. Following the book’s motto of Mente Videbor (‘by the mind I shall be seen’), McCarthy also describes using the emblems as persistent visual aids that then impinge on the subconscious in dreams or unexpected moments, sparking cathartic moments of recognition and realisation.

Minerva Britanna Mente Videbor

Although there are 204 emblems in Minerva Britanna they are by no means the sole creation of Peacham, denoting the derivative nature of the English strand of the emblem tradition as a whole. Eighty-four of the images draw from the works of such authors as Alciati himself, Theodore de Bèze, Joachim Camerarius, Camillo Camilli, Luca Contile, Paulo Giovio, Claude Paradin, Guillaume de La Perrière, Nikolaus Reusner, Cesare Ripa, Girolamo Ruscelli, Jacobus Typotius and Geoffrey Whitney, with fifteen based on Gerard de Jode’s engravings in Laurens van Haecht Goidtsenhoven’s  Mikrokosmos = Parvvs mvndvs from 1579. Unlike de Jode’s fine engravings, Pencham’s emblems were rendered as woodcuts (following composition cues from Camerarius, Camilli, Ruscelli and Typotius), substantially removing the subtlety found in the images of Mikrokosmos, but adding a simplicity and immediacy.

Minerva Britanna emblems

Lest this seem like an accusation of plagiarism as we understand it today, Peacham acknowledges his debt to his antecedents in his introduction, telling the reader that he has “imitated the best approved Authors in this kind: as Alciat, Sambucus, Iunius, Reusneru, and others…”. Just as translation was seen as potentially creating a new work (and Peacham free translated Goidtsenhoven’s text for the emblems that draw from Mikrokosmos), Peacham was adhering to Renaissance ideals of imitation which were divided, in ascending order of worth, into sequi (‘following’), imitari (‘imitating’) and aemulari (‘emulating’). While sequi more closely mirrors our definition of plagiarism, the aemulari of Peacham aims to not only follow the original but to transform and surpass it. For an in-depth discussion of this theme, see Mason Tung’s From Theory to Practice: A Study of the Theoretical Bases of Peacham’s Emblematic Art (1997).

Minerva Britanna emblems

The imagery in Peacham’s emblems is as diverse as his inspirations, ornately framed and usually staged within the same seemingly eternal landscape found in similar alchemical and hermetic illustrations. The occupants of these archetypal vistas are often animals or human figures, though in others, heraldic elements come to the fore and weapons, armour, scrolls, crests and disembodied limbs float without context in the air. As one would expect, the book’s cast of characters is largely drawn from classical mythology and history, with Peacham acknowledging as his sources the Greek Anthology, the works of Horace, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pliny’s Natural History and Aesop’s Fables. There are also nods to figures contemporary with Peacham and a few moments that can be interpreted as being indebted to Edmund Spenser’s conception of fairyland in The Faerie Queene; such as the Shadie Wood of Una replicated in the Nulli penetrabilis emblem, with its “uncouth pathes, and hidden waies unknown… by banks of Acheron.” Spenser’s work has much of the emblem about it with its layers of allegory and rhetoric, as well as the poet’s ability to succinctly describe scenes and characters in a comparable manner. Despite this minor intersection between Peacham and Spenser, and other than the Arcadian gloss that is sometimes given to visions of the fae, there is little amongst the imagery of Minerva Britanna that seems obviously faery.

The subscriptio that follow each picture, consistently presented as two verses ending in a couplet, creates a verbal interplay with the preceding iconic elements. Whether the interplay is integrative or diversive, the two elements are intended to work as one, strengthening each other, with the ‘moral’ then being drawn in the final couplet or lines, like a punchline or the last line of a proto-meme.

Minerva Britanna dedication

It is worth noting that Minerva Britanna is in the public domain and several complete, high resolution scans are available on While McCarthy’s introduction makes for interesting reading, its brevity does not make it indispensable, and so the real value of this edition is for those who want printed versions of the work, rather than a PDF. The emblems here have been digitally restored for reprinting by Michael Sheppard who performs an admirable job, removing the background texture of the original manuscript but leaving the lines clear and sharp, and unmarred by too much contrast. This edition of Minerva Britanna mirrors the original’s dedication to King James’ son Henry, the Prince of Wales, with a dedication to the current holder of that title who is described as “HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, King in Waiting, and beloved of the Faery Queene.”

Published by Quareia Publishing


(h)Auroræ – G. McCaughry

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Categories: alchemy, art, esotericism, hermeticism, luciferian, Tags:

(h)Auroræ coverGabriel McCaughry’s (h)Auroræ could be considered an inadvisable tome to review here at Scriptus Recensera because attentive readers will note that your faithful reviewer has a proofing credit in the opening pages. In my defence, your honour, the proofing was for only a section of the work, and the finished book is so much more, appearing unfamiliar and unrecognisable from the raw and partial pure-text draught I worked with; unless that’s just due to a poor memory… I don’t remember.

(h)Auroræ has an air of being McCaughry’s magnum opus, the sum result, from an aesthetic perspective, of all that he has done previously with his Anathema Publishing imprint. It’s gorgeously presented, intricately designed, with a poetic quality that is enigmatic and just a little bit impenetrable. At 304 pages and 5.25 x 8.5 inches dimensions, it feels substantial and weighty, the right size, texture and weight to convey a sense of significance and substance, fitting in your hands like a treasured tome, without being cumbersome. This aligns with statements McCaughry has made elsewhere, where he has talked of the magick inherent in books, and the profundity inherent in writing, producing and reading them.

(h)Auroræ is divided into three main sections or books, the first of which reprises the (h)Auroræ title and is itself comprised of five codices; plus a long, circumlocutory introduction from Shani Oates. Each codex consists of short stanzas of poetry, formatted in a fairly large italic face and almost always accompanied with an illustration on the respective facing page. McCaughry’s style of verse is, one could charitably say, brisk, sometimes running to as little as four lines, with an economy of words that nevertheless draws from a clearly defined lexicon. He declaims, rather than rhymes, using archaic turns of phrase and employing a wide array of imagery that references a variety of mythological and magickal sources, including Luciferianism, tantra, alchemy, the Ruba’iyat and Mandaeism. This cornucopia of culture and its recherché language choices makes for a somewhat abstruse encounter, where you can get a sense of what is being said, but like alchemical texts of old, you’re never sure if you’re quite getting it all.

Illustration by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal

Book two of (h)Auroræ is titled Neoteric Heterodoxy and, for the most part, eschews the poetry format of its predecessor for a more discursive approach. Here, divided into three sections, McCaughry discusses various aspects of magickal theory and growth, with considerations of Gnosticism, doubt and truth, as well as the various forces, constructs and entities in his conception of a magickal cosmology: Lucifer, the Temple of LUh-hUR, the UmbraPlasma, the Monolith, the Quartz of Return, the Omni-Cipher, the Demiurge and the PCR or Prism Concrete Reality.

The third and final book of (h)Auroræ is called Anaphoras, Advent & Theurgia, and feels very much the conclusion, incorporating as it does various miscellanea and appendices. The lion’s share of this section takes the form of McCaughry’s account of the workings that form the basis of what is presented here, effectively his magickal diary fleshed out into a substantial narrative. He does not provide much in the way of explicit, point-by-point instructions, instead advocating for the ability of an adept to find their own tools and techniques; and emphasising the status of (h)Auroræ as a book of mysticism, rather than magick, with all the ritual rigmarole that the latter might entail. With that said, McCaughry’s magickal record is detailed enough that should one wish to emulate it, there is much to draw from.

Page spread

(h)Auroræ is profusely illustrated by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal who almost deserves a co-author credit, such is both the impact and extent of his work. When almost every page within just the five codices of the (h)Auroræ section features an accompanying and presumably bespoke image, the amount of work is staggering; as is the cost, unless Sabogal severely undercharges for his work. There is an indefinable something about Sabogal’s illustrations, something that conveys an inherent sense of mystery and gnosis, but also somehow manages, with an apt turn of phrase, to keep silent.

Sabogal employs fine ink lines in a timeless manner that apes the look of traditional engraving, something that is reflected in the subject matter, where classical sculptures and equally sculptured bodies abound. In some instances, the lines of fine black ink are highlighted with striking washes of red, filling in spaces in some examples, and splattering across the image as blood in others.

Illustration by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal

Helpfully and fittingly, Sabogal speaks to his role in the book in The Birds That Speak At Dawn, his own chapter at the conclusion of (h)Auroræ. Here, he describes his and McCaughry’s shared creative journey, but also provides an explicit overview of the entire book, highlighting its passage of transmutation that begins with death and putrefaction and proceeds through four other alchemical stages symbolised by birds. Sabogal talks of dreams in which he discovers strange books filled with mysterious emblems, and thanks to his work here he may have created just such an oneiric tome.

In addition to Sabogal’s illustrations, (h)Auroræ succeeds in matters aesthetical with McCaughry’s typesetting and layout, which compliments the graphic content and showcases the written. For anyone that has seen McCaughry’s hand in the layout of other Anathema publications, there will be much here that’s recognisable, with the return of some familiar treatments and typeface choices. McCaughry has an antique typographic style, especially noticeable in the frontispieces that synthesise a variety of faces, styles and sizes, all perfectly balanced in their hierarchy and not cluttered or messy. With that said, there’s no slavish beholding to archaisms here, but rather a classic timelessness that joins rarefied presentation with readability.

Illustration by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal

(h)Auroræ was made available in three editions: a standard edition of 500 individually hand-numbered copies, a collector’s edition of approximately 125 copies, and an eleven copy artisanal Spume of Luna edition. The standard hardcover edition of (h)Auroræ measures 5.25 x 8.5 inches, with 304 Cougar Natural 160M archive-quality paper pages bound in a lovely metal-flecked Italian Tele Legatoria Bronze bookbinding cloth. A design on the front is foiled in gold, as is the title and author on the spine. The collector’s edition is the same as the standard edition but bound in Eurobound Black Flanders (bonded leather), with gold foiling on the spine and a more complex design on the cover, incorporating blind-debossed elements. The eleven copy Spume of Luna edition, individually hand-numbered, signed and glyphed by the author, is three-quarter-bound in genuine Black Galuchat Ray rawhide, and white cow leather with gold foil blocking on the cover, and a blind-deboss on the back cover. The interior features handmade endpapers, in addition to those used within the standard hardcover edition.

Published by Anathema Publishing


The Blazing Dew of Stars – David Chaim Smith

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Categories: alchemy, art, esotericism, hermeticism, qabalah, Tags:

The Blazing Dew of Stars coverDavid Chaim Smith, as his bio runs, is an author and artist based on Long Island, New York. He gained a BFA in drawing from Rhode Island School of Design and graduated from Columbia University with a Masters in 1989. His principle medium is finely rendered and intensely detailed pencil, and that’s what you get here in this large-format book from Fulgur; his second with that press, following on from 2012’s The Sacrificial Universe.

The Blazing Dew of Stars presents David Chaim Smith’s take on qabalah, otherwise seen in titles such as 2015’s The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis and 2016’s The Awakening Ground: A Guide to Contemplative Mysticism (both from Inner Traditions). Where those books differ from The Blazing Dew of Stars is the focus on Chaim Smith’s artwork, often appearing here as full page plates, with adjunct smaller illustrations in the margins of facing pages. That doesn’t mean this book is without writing, in fact, it is quite text heavy, with Chaim Smith’s images appearing as adjuncts to his dense, periphrastic text. It’s just such text that forms the first, and image-free, chapter, Reaching Beyond God, 24 pages of circumlocutory writing with phrases like “systems that cultivate compassion mitigate the primitive reflexes of animal power that produce the psycho-emotive toxins of the human realm” or “Conceptuality can slowly learn to be able to abide within it, such that subtle abstract impressions can slowly take over, subsuming the momentum of perceptual formation into visionary registers.” As your eyes glaze over after page after page of this, you find yourself skipping forward, hoping to hit the pretty pictures sometime soon; the ligatures on the serif typeface are nice, though, if a little showy.

David Chaim Smith: Secret Gestation of the Gnosime

Chaim Smith presents what he refers to as kabbalistic contemplative alchemy, a system he calls Iy’yun; a Hebrew word, sans the glottal stop, meaning ‘contemplation.’ Iy’yun is pursued, in this case in particular, through linguistic and graphic constructions, with its inner life creating resonating layers, revealed within the illustrations here, and it is this that distils the dew of the title; a gnostic realisation which accumulates with wonder, beauty and astonishment. Or so the blurb goes. This takes the form in a manner of ways: exegetical sections, more practical exercises in which Chaim Smith’s images are a meditative focus, and other exercises in which the illustrations are but representations of the concept in hand.

The dense and theoretical first chapter opening The Blazing Dew of Stars is followed by one that reprises the title of the book as its own and is subtitled A Kavanah Meditation in Three Parts. This three part meditation is based on three chambers, each focussed on a divine name: AHYH, ALP LMD HY YVD MM, and YHVH/MTzPTz. Chaim Smith provides a thorough exegesis on the metaphysics behind the procedure, in which the dew of contemplation is brought forth, the blaze is set alight, and the practitioner becomes a primordial mirror, a “liquid display of transelemental morphosis,” no less. This is then followed by the exercise itself, in which the various letters are visualised doing their thing, and which is, in turn, depicted graphically in Chaim Smith’s accompanying pencil illustration.

David Chaim Smith: The Blazing Dew

The third chapter, Unfurling the Dream Fire, is the book’s largest and most visually impressive section, in which Chaim Smith conveys ideas through four different methods: two textual and two graphical. Each spread begins with a usually brief verse, set in a large italic face, and this is then expanded upon below it in the smaller text of technical notes, featuring definitions, correspondences, and numerological values. The ideas contained within the initial quote are distilled into small, relatively simple, seals that sit in the right margin of the right hand page of a spread, while the left page is taken up entirely by considerably more elaborate elucidations of the ideas as full page illustrations. The idea, says Chaim Smith, is that the contemplator is able to overlap and interpenetrate meaning using a variety of mental tools.

The full page formatting of the images in Unfurling the Dream Fire allows them to be seen in all their glory, and execution. They are densely rendered almost entirely in just pencil; something that you don’t necessarily notice until you are viewing them at this size, where the smudged layers of graphite used for shading or as background can look murky and less impressive than at first glance. With his images featuring an abundance of alembics and other glass vessels, as well as the roots, trunks and branches of mystical trees, the most obvious comparison of Chaim Smith’s work are alchemical illustrations; notably those that accompany the work of fifteenth century alchemist George Ripley, such as the scroll that bears his name. There’s a persistent sense of growth and fluidity, of amrita dripping from receptacles and homunculi growing in cucurbits. All of the elements are contained within often circular borders, as well as boundaries created by text, often repeating the lines of the initial verse, or evoking key words. The same four-fold format is also followed in a later section, The Enthroning of the Blaze.

David Chaim Smith: Unfurling the Dreamfire

Several other sections follow Unfurling the Dream Fire, largely text based but accompanied with the occasional full-page image, including some instances where the illustrations are inverted, giving the impression of scratchboard or chalk on a black board. One of these, Dead Dreams Awaken the Sleeping Bride, is effectively a guided visualisation, heavy on exegesis within the journey text, accompanied by a single full-page illustration. Meanwhile, The Intoxicating Nectar of Vision, a received text of ten numbered verses that runs parallel to the creation narrative of the opening of Genesis, and which, naturally, follows the style and nomenclature of the rest of The Blazing Dew of Stars. This is an argot full of words such as transcendence, perceptual matrices, resonances and magical continuums; all lexemes that in their disorientating concatenation are often teetering on the edge of a word salad abyss.

David Chaim Smith: The Metacartograph

The regular edition of The Blazing Dew of Stars consists of 913 copies, measuring 27cm square with 138 pages in total, and 14 full page drawings, 29 seals and vignettes and a two-page folding plate of The Metacartograph, a large format, colour inverted illustration that acts as an “overview map of creativity in the manifestation of phenomena,” if you will. This edition is bound in black cloth, with a matte finish black dustjacket. The deluxe edition of 88 author-signed copies was bound by hand in full black morocco with special tooling in silver gilt, blind pressed and silver filled front panel embellishment. It included the dust jacket of the standard edition but was housed in a special lined slipcase of premium black cloth.

Published by Fulgur


Distillatio – Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule

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Categories: alchemy, art, classical, esotericism, hermeticism, magick, tantra, Tags:

Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule has already had one review this year here at Scriptus Recensera with Time, Fate and Spider Magic from Avalonia. While that work was largely a written one with elements of Orryelle’s art featured throughout, Distillatio is very much a complete showcase of their visual output in various mediums. As its name suggests, Distillatio represents said alchemical stage, and acts as a companion to the other parts of the process documented in Orryelle’s Tela Quadrivum series: Cojunctio, Coagula and Solve. The status of Distillatio as the final volume in this series and the culmination of the alchemical process is reflected in the design, with the book bound in a pure white cloth and wrapped in a weighty white dust jacket with the Cauda Pavonis or Peacock’s Tail in iridescent foil on the front and a similarly rendered fingerprint design on the back.

While the previous entries in the Tela Quadrivum series worked predominantly in black and white, with flecks of gold and silver, Distillatio takes the opportunity provided by the iridescence associated with its alchemical stage and runs with it. Colours, and in particular striking Melek Tausian-blues and a rich ruddy brown, dominate, with the book showcasing Orryelle’s ability as a painter in oils. Orryelle’s characteristic fleshy forms are given an added layer of depth and voluptuousness with the addition of oils, bringing with it a different sense of energy.

Like many of the line-drawn figures in occult art, Orryelle’s phantasmagorical forms usually have an ephemeral and chimerical feel, adrift in a timeless netherworld, but with the addition of oils, they become a lot more present, the line made flesh as it were. With this physicality comes two things, energy and permanence. In The Wild Hunt, participants in the Heljagd pour forth from the centre of the image, reaching across a tumultuous heaven in a furious motion that is mirrored below by the reaching branches of the World Tree. Their source at the centre, which in this case is the gutter of the two page spread, is a zoomorphic figure of Odin and Sleipnir interfused, disappearing into the liminal space created by the formatting of the book. Naturally evocative of Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Asgårdsreien painting from 1872, The Wild Hunt replaces Arbo’s classical forms with more tangible yet still fleetingly elven figures, whose ferocious, otherworldly speed is implicit within the flurry of brush strokes.

Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule: The Wild Hunt

The World Tree of the The Wild Hunt is a frequent motif within Distillatio, often assuming the same compositionally-central role, with its branches and roots emanating outwards, bringing with it various forms of life. In one, alchemical birds appear in its branches and surrounds: a bloody-breasted pelican feeding its young, a resplendent white eagle that forms the tree’s crown and is mirrored by the shadow of a black eagle in its root, while a peacock claims a branch as its own. Similarly in Cycle of Life, the tree sits at the centre of the only partially coloured and inked image, some of its limb anthropomorphised into grasping hands, while various animals and humanoid creatures emanate from it and circle around the frame as embodiments of Nature, red in tooth and claw.

Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule: Alchymic Birds on the World Tree

In more static images, Orryelle’s oil paint gives gravity and a luminous power to its subjects, such as the looming figure of Isis in Osiris Embalmed, or the apple-clasping Melek Taus adrift in a sea of peacock feathers and interstellar clouds in Melek Taus and the Path of Venus. Meanwhile, in With the Milk of a Gazelle, Hathor heals Hoor’s Eyes, an asomatous Egyptian landscape hosts Hathor, crowned effulgent, who heals the eyes of a contorted Horus that lies before her, his arms and legs twisted into uncomfortable reversal.

Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule: With the Milk of a Gazelle, Hathor heals Hoor’s Eyes

As evidenced by the variety of deities featured throughout the works, Distillatio is indicative of Orryelle’s eclectic mythological tastes, with the various divine stars being familiar to anyone who has encountered hir work before. This syncretic quality draws principally on Egyptian, Hindu and Germanic myth, with bits of Greek and Celtic thrown in, sometimes in the same image.

It isn’t only oil paintings that feature in Distillatio and Orryelle also includes a selection of his digital montages. Some of these incorporate elements of his paintings, such as St Michael And/As The Beast which blends the background of a painting with repeating photographic images of Orryelle as the titular and winged saint. There is something a little incongruous about the presence of these montages, and the incredible skill evident in the paintings is not necessarily always matched in their digital siblings. It feels like the book would have been no poorer had they been left out, allowing for the paintings alone to be a more solid and consistent body of work.

Explanations for the images are spread periodically throughout the book, appearing in explanatory blocks before or after several blocks of spreads. It’s not the most satisfactory way of presenting this information, requiring a lot of flicking backwards or forwards, but there’s not many other ways to do it. These legends to the legends are fairly pithy and provide an invaluable aid to understanding Orryelle’s multi-layered images. It is a shame the typography used here does not mirror the beauty of the images, with it all feeling very defaulty due to the body being set in generic Times, save for Orryelle’s typographically-inadvisable tendency to use a goody bag of other typefaces to highlight certain words. Subheadings are also subject to this, centered atop each section and appearing variously in Harrington, Stonehenge and the face that shall not be named; well, OK, suffice to say, I was not best pleased to see the Egyptian-related subtitles being in dreaded, stroke-bolded Papyrus.

Distillatio was made available in standard and deluxe editions, with the standard being 640 hand-numbered copies in white cloth with a white dust-jacket. The deluxe edition of 64 hand-numbered copies signed by the artist came in crushed white quarter morocco, stamped in black with top edge silver in a dust-jacket and slipcase.

Published by Fulgur